Michael Dante DiMartino’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, produced by Nickelodeon, is a fantastic work of art and literature. I’d go so far to even say it is the best “children’s” epic-fantasy series since Harry Potter. It is rich with deep characters, a believable universe, beautiful settings, and a tight yet slow-building narrative.
I’ve never been a big fan of Anime, aside from Studio Ghibli films and a select few others. But A:TLAB is refreshing in its blended drama and comedy as well as its art and narrative style. It does a wonderful job combining Japanese animation with classic American comic and cartoon graphics (think Jonny Quest). And it is constructed so that each season is called a “Book,” being a trilogy in all. It is almost as if the show were a live-action graphic novel.
This is the story of a girl, Katara, and her brother, Sokka, who find a boy named Aang awakening alongside his flying bison in the frozen waters of the south pole. We later find that Aang is the Avatar, an being who is charged with keeping peace on earth.
The world is unique in that a select group of people can “bend” or manipulate one of the four classical elements, and only the Avatar has the ability to master all four. It is also a world which is divided by these abilities.
We find that Aang has been missing from the world for one hundred years and in that time the Fire Nation has declared war and conquered and killed much of the other elemental bender nations. In fact, Aang’s entire tribe had been decimated by the genocidal war crimes of this empire. Now that he is back, it is his mission to restore the world to a state of solidarity.
Sokka and Katara join him on this quest, and for much of the time they are pursued by the banished Fire Prince, Zoku. They travel to every corner of the globe in search of masters to teach Aang bending skills and information as to how to stop the Fire Nation’s reign of terror. Along the way they meet many friends and enemies (and friends who become enemies or enemies who become friends) and circumstances shift often.
What struck me most was not only the well-thought plot and well-rounded characters, but also the depth of philosophical insight the show deals with. Whether consciously or not, the series expands upon Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey and Carl Jung’s concept of the collective consciousness as well as his fusion of eastern and western mythology, wisdom, and spirituality.
Aang is the conceptual fool tarot card embarking on the alchemical journey. Despite his comic nature, he is wise and powerful with a grand and dramatic destiny to fulfill. He and Zuko are shadows; at the end of Book Two, when he abandons the Avatar state, a pyschophysical condition which can cause great harm if not controlled properly, his identifying tattoos lit bright blue with energy, Zoku too abandons his past momentarily and Katara offers to heal his scars, something also marking his destiny, his past and future.
What is especially important about this scene is that it takes the traditional hero’s journey in which the hero is bound to destiny, deconstructs and challenges it. In the end Zuko is able to avenge his history and regain his honor without forsaking truth and morality, and so too can Aang attain his ultimate goal without murdering his enemies. They forge their own path, a new path that is not so black and white, yet still fulfills their heroes’ duties.
I was also impressed by the series’ attempt at redeeming the western concept of dragons as creatures of hell or something to be conquered. Instead it views them in regard to the eastern yin and yang. But rather than showing them as two opposing forces which must be balanced, it portrays them as two parts of a whole which must be brought together through osmosis. And this serves into the larger theme which breaks down good vs. evil and replaces it with a more grey, or colorful in this case, view of the world, morality, and politics. Aang and Zuko as hero and anti-hero for example are bound by circumstance relative to their own purposes, as are the warring nations. And it will only be when the conflict is resolved between these conflicting entities and they come together as one, as the Avatar masters all the elements and uses them as a single force, that solidarity and peace can reign.
Towards the end of their journey, an episode or two before the last, the group, incognito in the Fire Nation, spends a night at the theater watching a performance which sums up their journey thus far. Only it is from the viewpoint of the Fire Nation. The children are seen as a rebel terrorist cell of sorts which threatens the prosperity the empire is attempting to propagate. Here we see a wonderful examination of how morality is relative, how history and politics are determined more by perspective than truth. And beyond that, it is a great example of narrative self-consciousness akin to the opera scene in Final Fantasy VI, only more literal.
This series is a wonderful example of modern global myth, taking aspects of our world and presenting them for compassionate contemplation in the form of fantastic escapism, and has something to offer for everyone. It is a show that is great to watch alone, with friends, or as a family.